ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. — The most remarkable thing about Rory Sabbatini, in the year 2020, is that he doesn’t wake up each morning with a crippling identity crisis. The 44-year-old, who shot 65 to finish his opening round of the RSM Classic just a shot off the lead, is a one-man melting pot. He’s South African by birth but Slovakian by current residency (a product of his marriage to Martina Stofanikova, as well as his desire to play in the Olympics, for which he will almost certainly qualify). Meanwhile, you can’t help but notice as he spoke on Thursday that every once in a while, a southern accent crept into his speech. As in, southern American. When I screwed up my courage to ask him about it, he smiled.
“I think it’s from living in Texas for 13 years,” he said.
If Sabbatini, now in his 23rd season on the PGA Tour, is professional golf’s transcontinental man of mystery, his slow resurgence over the past four years, highlighted by a 36th-place finish in the FedEx Cup rankings in 2019, owes itself not to any global knowledge, but to a simple absence of pain. He played for years with an injured neck, and in 2016 he finally decided to get it fixed. The best option was an artificial disk replacement, and the results were immediate.
“I finally got to a point that I had no option,” he said. “I had to have surgery … it’s been probably the biggest life changer of anything I’ve ever done. It really went from one extreme to the complete opposite, agony to just joy just in minutes.”
The relief isn’t just physical, either—the psychological aspect of chronic pain is a punishment of its own.
“The stress factor of not knowing when you’re going to wake up and be able to compete because you didn’t know if your neck would be tweaked or something like that,” he said, trailing off to leave the memory unspoken. “The stress level was probably the worst part about it.”
Now he’s free from that suffering, other than the standard aches and pains of a 44-year-old body, and his strong round at Sea Island follows a T-12 finish at Sanderson Farms earlier in the fall. He hasn’t claimed a title on the PGA Tour since 2011, but the six-time winner who has earned more than $34.5 million in his career is beginning to dream again.
“I’m finally learning how to maximize the stronger points of my game,” he said. “I took too many years to figure that out. That and then spent many years working on improving my putting, and I feel like I’ve become a much more consistent putter and that alleviates a lot of pressure in the game right there.”
The putter delivered early, with four straight birdies on the first four holes on Sea Island’s Seaside course, a stretch that included three putts over 10 feet. A slew of pars followed, with another birdie on the back nine capping a bogey-free round. It’s early in the 2020-’21 season, and early in this tournament, but that hasn’t stopped his mind from drifting to potentially making the Masters … or at least his wife’s mind.
“I know my wife’s still kicking at me going, ‘C’mon, I just want to get to Augusta once,’” he joked. “That’s kind of her dream, on her bucket list. She’s going to get to caddie for me in Mexico this year. I told her, ‘Well, you better show up and put up.’”
As he stood cross-armed in the flash area, a tattoo with a series of roman numerals was visible on his forearm. It translates to Oct. 15, 2014, and I asked about the significance.
“That’s my anniversary.”
“That’s risky business,” I said, “getting your anniversary tattooed like that.”
“Well,” he said. “I found my unicorn.”
And now he’ll try to find something almost as rare—a PGA Tour victory.